Book review: This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader by Joan Dye Gussow

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The back cover of this book is filled with quotes from authors and newspapers, and since the copy I got at the library is a softcover there was no dust jacket flap; therefore I had to rely on the book’s title and references in the many quotes on the back cover and first two pages to determine what I was getting into. I inferred that it would be about organic suburban homesteading, given the title.

Well, no, not really. Organic, yes. Suburban, yes. Homesteading? Not as I define it. I’m not bashing it, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it – but I do think the title is misleading. As for confessions, there are some. About half of the book is comprised of anecdotes about the trials of gardening in two totally different soils (one perfected over the course of 34 years, one clayey and flood-prone), into old age, against the wishes of meddlesome neighbors, and through the death of her husband. The “confessions” delve toward the end into more of a rant. Mrs. Gussow is entitled to rant on the topics that she does (relocalization of American agriculture, the welfare of farmers, the effect of climate change on food production, etc.) because she is something of an expert in these areas and her complaints are quite real. It’s just not what I thought I was getting into.

She and her husband were influenced by Alan Chadwick, the English gardening guru who also inspired John Jeavons (proponent of the Biointensive method). They started a small garden in the mid-seventies for economic reasons and then got hooked. Over time the expanded the plot and what they grew in it as they picked up tricks for outwitting pests and filling harvest gaps by varying planting times. In the 80s, defending comments about local eating she’d made in her book The Feeding Web, she decided to disprove naysayers by eating only what she could produce in her yard. Ever since, she has worked toward the goal of producing all the vegetables and fruit her household would need from their own garden. After 34 years in their almost-crumbling three-story Victorian mansion, now in their sixties, they bought a much smaller house on a smaller plot on the banks of the Hudson, closer to conveniences such as food stores, libraries, and transit. The 150 year-old Oddfellows Hall they hoped to renovate ended up being too far gone and needed to be demolished and rebuilt, a process that took a year. In the meantime they gardened at both houses, lived out of the Victorian, and camped on the new property after the previous owners left. Just a few years after their new dream house was built, Joan’s husband died.

She has a lot to say, from direct experience in most cases, about feeding yourself from your own land, local and seasonal eating, GMOs (She was on the Food Advisory Committee of the FDA when they were reviewing a GM tomato called FlavrSavr. She subsequently broke the law by saving seed from the patented variety to resow the following year.), water shortages, and the systemic problems with America’s food supply today.

Definitely an interesting read, and food for thought. Just don’t expect any homesteading.

— Amanda

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